Doctrine of Christ (part 27)

May 13, 2012     Time: 00:31:27

We have been talking in our lesson about the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. We saw that, while this was the common assumption of the early and medieval church (that salvation was available through Christ and Christ alone), this doctrine began to go into demise with the “Expansion of Europe” between 1450 and 1750, as new civilizations and new worlds were discovered that had not so much as even heard of Jesus Christ, much less believed in him. We saw that this heightened awareness of the religious diversity of mankind has had negative missiological effects. Rather than thinking of the Great Commission as the command to go out to a lost and dying world and bring people to salvation and a relationship with God, missions has been largely reinterpreted to be a sort of social engagement with the third world – means of improving water, sanitation, fighting disease, helping agriculture, and so forth – but not really bringing lost and dying people into the Kingdom of God.

Religious Pluralism

As serious as those missiological consequences have been, the theological consequences have been just as serious. The most radical response, theologically, to our heightened sense of the religious diversity of mankind has been religious pluralism. The pluralist finds it simply unconscionable that any one particular religion could be true and that all the other religions of the world should be false. Whereas Christianity is a particularistic religion, the pluralist rejects religious particularism in favor of a pluralistic approach. This religious pluralism comes in two forms: what I call unsophisticated religious pluralism and sophisticated religious pluralism. Let me say a word about each of these.

Unsophisticated religious pluralism responds to the religious diversity of mankind by saying, “Well, they are all true! All of the world’s religions are basically saying the same thing.” This view, which you very often find on the lips of college sophomores and laypeople, just evinces, frankly, tremendous ignorance of the teachings of the world’s great religions. Anybody who has studied even a little bit of comparative religion knows that the worldviews that are propounded by these different religions are diametrically opposed to each other. Therefore, they cannot all be true. Just take, for example, Islam and Buddhism. Their worldviews have almost nothing in common with each other. Islam believes that there is a personal God who has created the world and who is omnipotent, omniscient, and holy. Islam believes that man is sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and that everlasting heaven or hell awaits us after death. It believes that we have to earn our salvation by putting our faith in God and by performing righteous deeds. Buddhism denies all of those things! For the classical Buddhist, ultimate reality is impersonal, not personal. The world is uncreated. There is no enduring self, no soul. Life’s ultimate goal is not personal immortality but rather annihilation – being reabsorbed into the Absolute, into the All. The ideas of sin and salvation play absolutely no role at all in this religion. You could multiply these sorts of examples endlessly. Clearly, all of these religions cannot be true because they have mutually contradictory views about the nature of God and ultimate reality, about the nature of the world, about man, about moral values, about what salvation is, and so forth.1 Now all of these conflicting views could be false, right? But very clearly they cannot all be true. Therefore, I think unsophisticated religious pluralism, despite its being the conventional wisdom in some circles, simply is untenable.

What the sophisticated religious pluralist says is that all of the world’s religions are, in fact, false. They are all false. None of them is true. Rather, they are all culturally relative ways of misconstruing ultimate reality. Ultimate reality, which you can’t really accurately call “God” because of the connotations that has in Western culture, should be given some non-descript name like “The Real” or “The Absolute.” That is what ultimate reality is. And nothing can be known about it. It has no properties and no characteristics. It is utterly non-descript. The Real is just sort of a blank, as it were. But the world’s religions all picture The Real in different ways according to their culture. None of these is accurate. Though they are all literally false, nevertheless, the different world religions are all equally effective in transforming people’s lives by making them less self-centered, helping them to live good lives, and so forth. So, although all of the world’s religions are literally false – being just culturally relative misinterpretations of The Real – , still they are all effective in transforming people’s lives in a good way. That is sophisticated religious pluralism.

Sophisticated religious pluralism raises a number of questions, but I want to focus on just one in our time together, namely, why should we think that religious pluralism is true? Why think that one particular religion cannot be true? What is wrong with religious particularism? Specifically, what is wrong with Christian particularism?


Question: Where I thought you were going with the unsophisticated pluralism was exactly what you said, but I think it is obvious that you can’t have two beliefs that are true when they are diametrically opposed to each other. However, what I hear more is “Buddhism is true for you, but not for me.” Maybe I am misunderstanding it, but it is the “All roads lead to heaven” kind of idea. Maybe that is what you are calling sophisticated pluralism. It is more of this thought that what is good for you is good for you and what is good for me is good for me, and all roads lead to the same place; we just have our own cultural belief systems, and they are all valid.

Answer: I think what you described is a confused mish-mash of a number of issues. Taken literally what you said – Buddhism is literally true for Ming but Christianity is true for John and Islam is true for Abdul – that is not an expression of either of these views. That would be an expression of a philosophical view that we could call Ontological Relativity. That is to say, that there is no objective way the world is. There is no objective reality. Each person literally inhabits a different world. In your world there really is a God who created the world, who made the Big Bang, and so forth.2 But for the Buddhist, the world really is illusory, there was no Big Bang, there is no such being as God. Can you see how radical this view is? Ontological Relativity is so off the deep end, I didn’t even think we’d mention it.

Followup: I’m sorry! I didn’t realize I was that far off the deep end!

Answer: No, no! It is worth bringing it out. This isn’t your view, I don’t think! The Ontological Relativist is a really radical pluralist. He would say that there is no objective truth, there is no objective way the world is, and therefore each of us shapes reality for himself. If you really think about this view, it is so wild it is almost insane, really. Do we really think that the Big Bang and the era of galaxy formation and the Jurassic Age depends upon me for its existence? That I, somehow, shaped the past and the history of the world? It doesn’t even make sense; how can those things exist prior to my being here if they depend upon me for their existence? It is just crazy. It is a crazy view, first. But then the other thing we can say about it is it’s a self-refuting view. It is not only crazy, it is self-refuting – why? Because the Ontological Relativist says there is no objective way the world is. Now, is that statement objectively true or not? If it is, then there is an objective reality described by the Ontological Relativist. So if he is affirming Ontological Relativism is objectively the way it is, then he has affirmed objective reality. But if he says, “No, no, it is just that way for me! Ontological Relativity is true for me, but it is not true for you,” well, then, why worry about his view? He is just wrong in that case, if it’s just his opinion. So the view, I think, is ultimately self-refuting.

What you kind of mingled in, or mish-mashed, with Ontological Relativity is saying things like “Everybody gets to the same place in the end” and “All roads lead to God.” That is more the unsophisticated religious pluralist who thinks all these religions are basically saying the same thing, so we will all get to heaven. The problem with that is that people like Buddhists don’t think there is any heaven. They don’t think there is any soul that endures. Certain other religions deny the afterlife as well. So that is a very Christocentric kind of view – to think we all get to the same place. That is assuming that one view of the afterlife is true. So that is mixed up. But the view that what is good for you is good for you but something else might be good for me – that is sophisticated religious pluralism. It is saying we are not all going to wind up in the same place because we don’t know what ultimate reality is like; but Islam can make you a good person if you follow it, and Buddhism can make you a good person if you follow it faithfully, and Christianity can change my life if I follow it faithfully. So I am going to go to church and say the Lord’s Prayer and take mass and things of that sort. But it is all right for you to go to the Buddhist temple and burn incense and do your thing because it doesn’t really matter. Each one of these religions has a life-transforming value. That is more the sophisticated pluralist.

Followup: Before we leave this, and I am left as crazy and self-refuting, I think what I was aiming at was really the sophisticated, then. I did mix them up, but in my mind I think I was leading toward whatever that Ultimate is. Then you have your own belief that would get you to this Ultimate universal . . .

Answer: But you see – you are still assuming there is some destination that you are on your way toward, and you can’t say that. I mean, for this sophisticated religious pluralism view, the benefits of religion are entirely in this life. Because this is all we know! It is reinterpreted as a means of a sort of life improvement here on this planet. But you can’t say things like “We are all going to get to the same place someday” because that is assuming there is some place! And a lot of religions deny that, and to think that there is some place is to abandon pluralism and assert that some particular religion is true with regard to the afterlife.3 So the sophisticated religious pluralist scotches the afterlife – it doesn’t play a role. Religion is a purely immanent phenomenon, not a transcendent phenomenon. The benefits of religion are immanent in this life, and his claim is they all are effective, and so different religions are good for different people.

Question: I had a question about neo-Kantians – like Immanuel Kant’s view where there is a world that appears to be, there is a world as it is, which is different, and there is a wall of antinomy between the two. Some pluralists believe that the world as it appears to be has the different religions, but it all connects to the same God in the noumenal world or the world as it is. Is that sophisticated, unsophisticated, or just some completely different idea.

Answer: That does bear some resemblance to sophisticated religious pluralism in the sense that, in the philosophy of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, he believed that reality in itself is unknowable, we can’t say anything about what it is like . . .

Followup: And yet he knows that, too!

Answer: Yeah, well, that’s the self-contradiction! But reality in itself is non-descript. It is kind of like what the religious pluralist is saying. Kant thought that we structure it by certain categories of our mind and forms that we impose on our sense perceptions. I suppose the difference with the religious pluralist and Kant would be Kant thought that these forms and categories are universal among people, whereas the religious pluralist emphasizes the diversity. You interpret The Real one way, and I interpret The Real another way, so although the noumenon (the thing itself) is as it is, appearances are different. The Real appears to the Muslim different than The Real appears to the Christian. What the pluralist wants to say is that both of these views are false. They are really false perceptions of The Real because we really don’t know what The Real is like. We can’t say anything about it.

Question: What we are dealing with in the real world, in the society in which we live, is very much different than the society you and I came up in. My children who are in their 20s have gone to school, they are intelligent people, and they have a lot of friends that are Muslims and Hindus, and they don’t approach this in an intellectually rigorous way. It is an emotional rejection of the fact that here are these people that are their friends – they know, they trust, they like – are being condemned to eternal damnation simply because they don’t believe in Christ and are not going to. So your rigorous approach is nice, but how do you deal with that in the real world?

Answer: Well, now you are asking a sort of pastoral, as opposed to philosophical, question. I think that you have to tell people that unless they have good reasons for what they believe, they are just going on the basis of their emotions, and that is not a legitimate way to arrive at conclusions. While you appreciate and understand their emotions, nevertheless, we need to think hard about this. If they are going to reject the Christian view, they have to do so more than on emotional grounds. Maybe you could make an unhappy comparison. Say, “You are just like the Bible-pounding televangelist preacher who just goes on the basis of pure emotions, and your rejection of the Christian view is no more valid than his view because you are just both going on pure emotions rather than on reason.” So we have got to look at what are the reasons for thinking religious pluralism is true and that religious particularism is false. I don’t know any other way to get around it but to just make people think hard about it.

Bad Arguments for Religious Pluralism

With that having been said, let me go on to talk about some of the arguments that are offered for religious pluralism because I think that there are some arguments on behalf of religious pluralism that are just obvious logical fallacies and can therefore be quickly dismissed.4

For example, pluralists will very often say that it is arrogant and immoral to claim that any one particular religion is true. If you claim Christ is the only way, you are an arrogant person and therefore immoral. This seems to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy which is called by philosophers “argument ad hominem.” That is Latin for “against the person” or “against the man.” What is that? Argument ad hominem is trying to invalidate a position by attacking the character of the person who holds to it. You try to invalidate a person’s position by attacking his personal character, like saying he is arrogant or immoral; therefore his view is false. This is clearly a logical fallacy, and this can be easily illustrated. Imagine an AIDS researcher who has finally hit upon a successful AIDS vaccine. But also imagine that this fellow is incredibly conceited. He looks down on his colleagues as mental midgets because they didn’t discover the AIDS vaccine. He thinks he is the most brilliant medical researcher in the world, and he thinks he deserves a Nobel Prize for his discovery. He is completely arrogant and conceited. Now does the fact that this man is arrogant and that he is immoral and has a character flaw mean that he hasn’t discovered a successful AIDS vaccine? Would you, if you had AIDS, refuse to take his vaccine because he is arrogant and immoral? Obviously not! The truth of his claim is independent of his personal character. In exactly the same way, it is simply irrelevant to the truth of any particular religion whether or not its adherents are arrogant or not. So the argument is clearly logically fallacious.

But in any case, why should we think that religious particularists are arrogant? Why is that true? Suppose that I’ve done my dead level best to figure out the truth about God and the world. Suppose I’ve prayed and I’ve studied the different world religions and I’ve sought God and I’ve read books and I’ve cried out to God from my heart and suppose I am convinced that Christianity is true. What else can I do but believe in it? I think it is true! If I think it is true, what else can I do but believe in it? Does that make me arrogant and immoral? I think it is very hard to see why that would follow. I think believing in the truth of one particular religion doesn’t imply arrogance or immorality at all.

Thirdly, a final irony of this objection is that it turns out to be a double-edged sword. For if it is arrogant to hold to a religious belief which is rejected by most other people and implies that their views are false, then it follows that the religious pluralist is himself arrogant and immoral. Religious pluralists, remember, think that everybody else’s views are false – that all of the world’s religions are false and that the religious pluralist alone has seen the truth. Religious pluralists, who are a tiny fraction of the population of mankind, alone are right, and everybody else is wrong! I mean, how arrogant can you get? So this turns out really to be a double-edged sword – if it is valid against the particularist, it is equally valid against the religious pluralist.

Another bad argument against religious particularism that you will very often hear is that people’s religious beliefs are culturally relative. If you had been born in Pakistan, they would tell you, you probably would have been a Muslim. But if you had been born in Ireland, then you probably would be a Catholic. Therefore, none of these particular religious beliefs can be true; they are all culturally relative. Again, this seems to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy which philosophers call “the genetic fallacy.”5 This is the fallacy of trying to invalidate a person’s view by showing how the person came to hold that view. It tries to invalidate his view by showing the genesis, or the origin, of that view. This is, again, clearly fallacious. For example, if you had been born in ancient Greece, you probably would have believed that the sun goes around the Earth and probably thought that the Earth was flat. Does that mean that your belief that the Earth goes around the sun and that the Earth is a sphere is therefore false or unjustified? Obviously not! It commits the genetic fallacy to say simply that because, if you had been born someplace else, you would have had different beliefs, therefore your belief is false or unjustified. Again, this argument also turns out to be a double-edged sword. Think about it. If the religious pluralist had been born in Pakistan or in Ireland, he probably would have been a religious particularist, right? And that proves, therefore, that his belief in religious pluralism is false or unjustified. He is a religious pluralist because he just happened to be born in late 20th century Western society. But if he had been born someplace else, in all likelihood he would have been a religious particularist! So by his own lights, religious pluralism is false or unjustified. So this argument also turns out to be a double-edged sword.

Many of the most popular arguments that you hear repeated all the time for religious pluralism and against particularism, I think, are just textbook examples of logical fallacies like argument ad hominem and the genetic fallacy.


Question: I just had a comment to underscore what you are saying. We are told that the Christian Gospel is the only way of salvation. That sounds exclusive and narrow and limited and politically incorrect and intolerant. But the question is not whether it is palatable; it is whether it is true or false. An analogy would be if this building were on fire and there is only one way out. To tell people there is only one way out may sound narrow and exclusive, but the question is: is it true?

Answer: And that might be very unwelcome news if you are in the burning building and are told there is only one exit. That would be very unwelcome! But that is irrelevant to the truth. Good point!

Question: On the first one, where it says arrogant and immoral and in addressing the point about having friends and our emotional attachments: you don’t apply that standard to any other area of life. When these friends go about their business – they have calendars and schedules and drive cars – they don’t assume that all of this is relativistic. They operate in a world where you have realities and truths and falsehoods. In no other sphere of life do they apply this idea that everything is the same regardless of what you believe.

Answer: I think you have put your finger on a very important point that we haven’t emphasized so far. And it is this: I think the reason that some people are so offended at this idea is because they don’t think that matters of religion are matters of fact. They think they are matters of taste. It would seem presumptuous for me to try to say that it is objectively true that vanilla tastes better than chocolate. It may taste better to me, but it might not taste better to you. So who am I to go around telling everybody else vanilla tastes better than chocolate? I think that people think that religious beliefs are more like that. They are matters of taste. They are not like the Big Bang theory or the General Theory of Relativity or Darwinian Evolution or things which are matters of fact. What we need to help them understand, as you pointed out in comparing this to other areas of life where we are talking about matters of fact or the other example about the burning building, which is a classic example of a matter of fact, – we are talking about religious beliefs in terms of their factual content.6 Is there really a Creator and Designer of the universe? Do we have an immortal soul? And so forth. If these are matters of fact that we are talking about, then you can’t just dismiss them as true for you and not true for me because they are not matters of taste. That is a very fundamental, cultural challenge that we as Christians face. It is helping people to see that when we share the Gospel we are talking about real matters of fact that are true or false, not just matters of taste which are person-relative.

Let me just say, in conclusion, please don’t think that because there are these superficial, fallacious arguments on behalf of pluralism that pluralism is not a real challenge to Christianity. On the contrary, I think that pluralism does pose a very serious challenge to Christianity. But by clearing away these fallacious objections first, we can get to the real heart of the matter, which we will do the next time.7

1 5:04

2 9:59

3 15:06

4 20:00

5 25:00

6 30:03

7 Total Running Time: 31:26 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)